The biography department of any bookstore can be a tricky place to look for a good read. There are the celebrity biographies that sell well, especially around Christmas time or released to coincide with the celeb’s latest scandal or relationship, which are usually ghost written and air-brushed to tell the fans what they want to know. There are the ‘tragedy’ or ‘event’ biographies where someone’s story becomes important or interesting because of something that happened to them – surviving the Titanic, escaping from a brutal regime – or because they just happened to be in the right place at the right time when something really significant was happening around them. The category that I find can throw up some of the best and some of the worst biographies is the ‘personal memoir’.
On one hand we’re bombarded with what I like to call “My sh*t childhood” books. You know the ones – small child, big eyes, gazing up at the camera like a dog that’s been kicked too much, sad-eyed Irish waif telling of a life drinking tea out of a jam jar or even worse those awful ‘my mother sold me to men in the back of a van’ stories. I can’t stand those and I won’t read them. What I love are the “Here’s my life. I’m nobody you’ve ever heard of or ever met, but this is my story – take it or leave it”. Such a book – and a fine example indeed – is Elena Gorokhova’s book A Mountain of Crumbs – Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain.
You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like I’ve just contradicted myself. Surely a childhood in Soviet Russia is going to mean this is a book about what a horrible childhood she had – eating weeds, chipping the ice off her eyebrows as she walks 40 miles to school and being beaten for forgetting the 15th point on the list when reciting the Soviet Five-year plan for agricultural rehabilitation. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not a horrible childhood, though it’s undoubtedly one very different from her western peers, but it’s a fascinating one nonetheless. It’s true to say that growing up in St Petersburg in the 1960s wasn’t the easiest thing to do – but growing up anywhere in the 1960s was very different to today.
We learn of her school days – long plaits curled round and tied up with ribbons – of becoming a ‘Young Pioneer’ and receiving the red neckerchief as a right of passage. We read of summers by the coast, picking soft fruit and torturous sessions of jam and pickle making as her parents attempt to avoid wasting anything. As she gets older she’s having a fairly wild time – running off to spend a summer on the beach in Crimea, drinking cheap wine, tanning her skin and falling in love with a handsome Ukrainian. We follow her education in English classes which allows her horizons to open up in ways that her friends speaking only Russian couldn’t have imagined – leading tour groups of American students around her city, going inside the foreign currency beirozka shops and wondering why people would want to buy such ‘tat’ when all she wanted was jeans and American things.
There are harsh moments. Her father’s illness progresses beyond the point of return because even with a wife working in the hospitals, he cannot get an admission for treatment. The childhood freedoms that we took for granted were often denied to young Russian children and it’s hard to put a price on those freedoms. Her mother is a ‘party’ person – by which I mean she follows the edicts of the party, not that she likes to throw a good one. How can anything be better in the west, she wonders, when the Soviet Union is best at everything? The inter-generational wrangles are clear – why can’t Elena go and get a proper job as an engineer or a scientist instead of messing around with all these foreigners? Her sister is an actress – another job that her parents struggle to see as contributing to the betterment of their country. The contrasts are clear but there’s nothing patronising – Gorokhova presents her mother’s views with fairness and understanding rather than ridicule.
Gorokhova escaped to the USA in the 1980s, taking advantage of being one of the bright kids at school who was allowed to learn to speak English. The process of getting away is fascinating – the interminable applications and interviews, the acceptance that her exit is a one-way process with no return ticket. Her ‘escape’ marks the end of the book and leaves the reader wondering about her life in exile. Is the American dream a reality or just another facade or mountain of crumbs. Her explanation of how she got away is very interesting – the man who agreed to ‘marry’ her just so she could get out must surely be commended for his selfless determination to help. Clearly the opportunities open to her would be better in the ‘Free world’ but this is not a biography that slags off her homeland.
Gorokhova grew up in St Petersburg – surely the most beautiful of Russian cities – and her family would be classified as ‘middle class’ if such things had existed in Russia, which of course they didn’t. Her mother taught anatomy at the local hospital and her father had a good job too. The family had a dacha (holiday home) by the Baltic Sea, and whilst it was a scruffy place with rotting boards and a perpetual need to repaint bits of it, it was still a pretty idyllic way to spend the summers. Life wasn’t easy but it wasn’t horrible either.
The mountain of crumbs referred to in the title dates back to a game her grandmother played with her mother and uncle when they were children. Now they really did have it tough as children enduring starvation conditions in the 1920s. Grandmother would take a small piece of bread and a lump of sugar for Elena’s uncle and crumble them into tiny pieces to make it look like there was more food. These mountains of crumbs seem to symbolise Elena’s life many years later – not relating to food, but referring to the facade created by the Communist Party, the attempt to make the Soviet Union seem like so much more than it really was.
If you’re interested in Soviet-era Russian life, or even just inspired by the strength of human spirit that it takes to leave a settled existence and strike out for something very different, then I commend this book to you. By the end I felt like Elena was an old friend who’d just told me her story. There’s nothing arrogant, nothing contrived – it’s honest (painfully so in places) and endearing and I was left wanting more.
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